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History Program at Western to host Nov. 8 musical events focused on song as history, news reporting

October 26, 2016

Musical notes have o
Musical notes have often reflected the red, white and blue of the American experience, as two campus events on Nov. 8 will demonstrate.

The History Program at Western Wyoming Community College, in partnership with the WWCC Cultural Affairs Committee and the Arlene and Louise Wesswick Foundation, will offer a pair of fascinating presentations on Tuesday, Nov. 8, both of which will focus on how songs, ballads and spoken-word poetry have been used throughout the centuries to report on and explain current and historical events and social conditions. Montana musician and balladeer Bill Rossiter will perform live at both events, which are free and open to the public.

At 12 p.m. in Room 1309, Rossiter will present “All The News That’s Fit To Sing: Scandals, Politics, and Slanders in Song.” As Rossiter explains, “From the beginning of history, the ‘folk’ have felt the need to Spread The News. Often, in days past, songs were the unofficial news articles – and editorials: a murder, an assassination, a political scandal, or a rigged election often fomented the musical equivalent of a tabloid story – or perhaps a blog.”

Rossiter explains that, many times, the verses would be written to accompany a currently popular tune, and would often run in the “poet’s corner” of rural newspapers. He cites “The Ballad of Oct. 16th,” which was written to the tune of an old Jesse James song, with updated verses to reflect dissatisfaction with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.

Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

         We damn near believed what he said:

                “I hate war, and so does Eleanor

  “But we won’t be safe ‘til everybody’s dead.”      

Another tune that once lamented the assassination of President William McKinley was later turned against President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression.

        Look here, Hoover, see what you done

You went off a-fishin’, let the country go to ruin.

“This, then, is history as registered not in literature, but in ‘illiterature,’ in the bare-knuckle songs that come from the guy down the block rather than from Tin Pan Alley,” Rossiter explains. “Few of the songs are ‘pretty’ (although some are pretty awful), and many bear the mark of the amateur songwriter, but they make up in humor, directness and feeling for what they lack in finesse.”

Rossiter will perform some of these historical tunes, and will explain the artistry, history and politics behind them, at 12 p.m. in Room 1309.

At 6:30 p.m., also in Room 1309, Rossiter will present “No Irish Need Apply: The Irish-American Experience in Story and Song,” which looks at how the story of the Irish in America has been communicated and preserved through “folk culture,” which serves as unofficial history and as an informal tale of how people really live. This program will examine some of the oral traditions and the history, poetry and social situations they celebrate and lament, using published oral history and tales as well as traditional American songs of the Irish immigrant experience.

The following is an excerpt from a traditional Irish-American song:

   I seen employment advertised, "Tis just the thing," Sez I,

   But the dirty spalpeen ended with "No Irish Need Apply"

Rossiter will accompany his song selections with the guitar, banjo, autoharp and harmonica, showing the “texture” of the Irish experience in America. This program picks up where history books leave off, and it applies some corrective to the stereotypical “Paddy” image of Irish immigrants so often presented on stage and screen.

Following the evening presentation, WWCC Associate Professor of History Jessica Clark, Ph.D., will host an informational session about the upcoming study-abroad program “Irish Heritage,” a 12-day excursion in May 2017 that includes stops in Dublin, Cork, Killarney, and Belfast. Clark will discuss logistics of the trip and the accompanying optional course, “Irish Heritage,” which may be taken for one to three credits. Cookies and beverages will be served during this session.

Bill Rossiter is a 2015 recipient of the Governor’s Award for Service to the Humanities in Montana. He chaired the Humanities Division and taught literature and “illiterature” (folklore) for 25 years at Flathead Valley Community College and at the University of Montana, retiring in 1999.

Rossiter currently rambles around Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado singing songs of the railroad, heroes and outlaws, Irish immigration, the frontier, the Civil War, cowboys and sodbusters, mines and miners, the Great Depression, and other eras of American history. With his wife, Sharon, he sings songs of courtship, love, wedlock (and deadlock) from the past four centuries. Rossiter regularly performs at museums, heritage centers, ski resorts, town festivals, libraries, and heritage celebrations throughout the Rocky Mountains.

For more information about “All The News That’s Fit To Sing: Scandals, Politics, and Slanders in Song,” and “No Irish Need Apply: The Irish-American Experience in Story and Song,” contact Dr. Jessica Clark at or at (307) 382-1864.


For more information, contact Audrey Harton at (307) 382-1661 or
(307) 382-1600 or toll free (800) 226-1181